Without Google, people behind bars pen their questions to librarians

At the San Francisco Public Library, librarians serve as gates to online information for those who can't access it themselves.

Abrar Al-Heeti Technology Reporter
Abrar Al-Heeti is a technology reporter for CNET, with an interest in phones, streaming, internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. She's also worked for CNET's video, culture and news teams. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
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Rachel Kinnon and Jeanie Austin, librarians at the San Francisco Public Library, receive about 60 questions a week from a dedicated group of fans: prison inmates.

The inquiries, usually handwritten and sent by post, range from requests for information about transitioning to life outside of prison to explanations of technologies that may not have existed before a prisoner was put away, like 5G and bitcoin. Song lyrics are a frequent ask.

Tech infiltrates nearly every aspect of our lives, but remains virtually nonexistent in jails and prisons. Inmates typically don't have access to computers or cellphones. Sometimes they can send and receive electronic messaging, a stripped-down form of email. But it's expensive and limited by character counts.


The Next Chapter is a multipart series that examines the changing role of libraries in a connected world. 

James Martin/CNET

That's why Kinnon and Austin are so important to inmates. They serve as human go-betweens for prisoners and information that's often readily available online.

Prisoners express "how they were really disconnected before they had this link to the world," said Kinnon, who manages the SFPL's Jail and Reentry Services program. "There's such a desperate need for information."

Unlike Google , which generally returns results in less than a second, the process of answering prisoner questions can take weeks. Kinnon and Austin scan the letters they read and email them to other librarians, who research the answers. Researchers often do a quick Google search for the answer or access dedicated databases such as ProQuest, EBSCO and Gale.

When the responses come back, the pair review them, print them out and mail them back.

Librarians: the original search engines

The SFPL, which is celebrating National Library Week along with other US institutions, isn't the only library that serves as a de facto Google for inmates. In fact, its letter-writing service, called Reference by Mail, is modeled after a similar program at the New York Public Library.

As part of an agreement, the two libraries essentially split the country, with the NYPL taking letters from prisoners in the eastern half of the country and the SFPL taking letters from the western half. A third library, the Harris County Public Library in Houston, takes letters from prisoners in Texas. Other libraries also take questions from prisoners.

Reference by Mail

Some of the letters the San Francisco Public Library receives from inmates. 

Rachel Kinnon

There are limits to what they can provide. For example, librarians can't offer legal advice, adult entertainment or information related to violence. Inmates are allowed to write up to two letters a month to the SFPL.

All responses include a source note explaining why a particular resource was chosen, as well as a reference list. Responses can run as many as 20 pages. Sometimes librarians will write their own explanations. Other times, they'll send an article addressing the topic an inmate is interested in.

"Sometimes we get asked astrophysics questions, and I'm just like, 'Screenshots all the way,'" Austin says with a laugh.

Not all the questions revolve around serious topics. One person wrote to the NYPL asking about the history of the hot dog, while another requested pictures of every My Little Pony. Someone once asked for love spells, particularly ones that would work through mail.

The fact that prisoners use their limited supply of stamps and envelopes to write to the library is telling of how important the resource is to them, Kinnon says.

"We've had people say explicitly, 'I wouldn't get any mail if it weren't for you,'" she says.

Watch this: This library puts tech in the hands of its patrons